SUNDAY SERMON: What happens when we die?

By Rev. Stephen Baldwin

NEW TESTAMENT: John 3.14-21

I love a good backstory. Don’t you? For example, everybody knows the famous song “I Will Always Love You” originally written and performed by Dolly Parton, later sung by Whitney Houston. But did you know the backstory? 

Dolly was on Porter Wagoner’s show, and they were the lead singers. Dolly knew in 1973 it was time for her to move one, but Porter didn’t want to lose her. So she wrote the song as a way to convince him to let her move on peacefully. After she sung it to him, he said she could leave…as long as she let him produce the song because it was her best yet. 

Do you know the backstory of John 3.16? Everybody remembers the famous words, “For God so loved the world….” But have you ever thought about who Jesus spoke those words to and why? It’s a fascinating backstory.  

A Pharisee named Nicodemus comes to visit Jesus one night.  Why would a Pharisee come to see Jesus…in the dark, nonetheless?  Because he has a question.  Not a “gotcha” question he wants to ask in public to trap Jesus; he has a sincere question he thinks only Jesus can answer.  A question he’s almost embarrassed to ask.    

If you read through the first part of chapter three, his question is about as clear as the mud all this March rain has caused.  He and Jesus go back and forth about water and the spirit and wombs.  It’s all very muddy.  But when we ask a question that we should know the answer to or a question we are embarrassed to raise, we mumble and fumble just like Nicodemus.  

His question is: What happens when we die?  A question we’ve all asked. Because we fear death.  A lot.  More than spiders.  More than heights.  The only thing we fear more is public speaking, and that’s because we think doing it will surely kill us.  Our fear is evident even in our language.  We say people “pass away, perish, lose their fight, or become deceased”; we’re so afraid of the subject we can’t even say when someone “dies.”  

It’s a touchy subject. So touchy that a religious leaders goes at night to ask Jesus for help answering it. Now you see why he fumbles his words.  These are the questions people come and ask Nicodemus. He’s supposed to have answers. This would be like Dolly asking me for help writing a song! 

Jesus answers by saying, “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.”

While it’s not a direct answer, it’s about as close as Jesus ever gets to being direct. He basically says, “Death is not the end, because of God’s love.” 

And I’m sure that made Nicodemus feel better. It makes us feel better. But we still might want to know more, mightn’t we? Like, does this mean you have to believe to have eternal life? What if I don’t believe as deeply now as I once did? What about my child who believes something very different from me? 

Jesus continues with verse 17, which for me is just as important as verse 16, saying, “Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.”  

Jesus didn’t come to die.  He came to live. Jesus didn’t come to condemn. He came to save. For God so loved the world. 

The question isn’t what happens when we die? The question is if anything is more powerful than God’s love? And the answer is no. 

Jesus came that the world might be saved through him, through God’s love. Jesus doesn’t qualify that to certain people or certain religions or certain confessions. It’s for everyone. Which was quite a thing for Jesus to say to a church leader.

What happens when we die? Is that something that you wonder? Do you wonder more the older you get? Or do you wonder less the older you get? I sympathize with Nicodemus for coming to Jesus at night to ask for his help, because there are no easy answers to give people struggling with that question. Actually, there are plenty of easy answers we give people all the time, but I’m not sure they’re helpful or faithful answers. 

We may tell people not to worry about it, but they will. We may

tell people that they’re going to heaven, but how do we know that? We may tell people they’re going somewhere else, but we don’t know that either. We may tell people we don’t know, and while that’s honest…it may not help them. 

Which is why I think it may not be the right question. It’s not so much what happens when we die; it’s whether anything is more powerful than God’s love? To that question, I feel confident in saying NOTHING is more powerful than God’s love, and we know that God’s love came into the world not to condemn, but to save.   

The father of our Presbyterian faith, Jean Calvin, puts it a little differently, as he usually does.  He says we’ve died already.  Did you hear that?  We already died.  The creatures we used to be, before the great flood, before the Christ came to save us, are dead. We—sinners— already died!  Which means we are free to live, free to believe, free to work our way back home to God.  

Nicodemus asks: What happens when we die?  We don’t know.  We just don’t know.  In order to comfort themselves, people speculate.  Some say our souls and bodies separate.  Some say they either go up or down.  Some say we go to a waiting room until Jesus returns to earth.  I say in the Scriptures God’s promises are a sketch and not a blueprint.  They give us an idea and not an answer.  We live in time and space; God exists outside time and space.  We don’t know exactly what will happen after we die, because we don’t have a blueprint.  We do have a sketch, and we know that Jesus brings life eternal.  We know that God sent the Son to save the world.  We know that God promises eternal life to those whom God loves.  We know that God’s son came not to condemn, not even those who condemn others.  We know enough to trust God.  Enough to trust that God will do what God promises.  Enough not to fear.  Enough not to take life and death into our own hands.  

If we did know everything, what use would faith be?  What would we have to believe in if we knew all of God’s mysteries?  We don’t know it all, but we do know God promises, “I will always love you,” and perhaps that’s all we need to know. Amen. 

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